I first got on the internet in 1999 and was quickly hooked. Like many of you, I work online, get my news online, and communicate with most of my friends online. I have probably spent way too much of my life staring at a computer screen. Anybody who has been on the internet as long as I have, and has seen the media change in immeasurable ways, probably has a few defunct websites they recall with fondness. Many web pages have come and gone from my Bookmarks folder, cast into the internet neither world, never to be seen again. Sometimes ownership changes hands, the original site being absorbed into a bigger conglomerate, which is what happened to Reel.com. Sometimes the proprietor of the site simply looses interest in the topic at hand or no longer has the time for it, which is what happened to Blitzkrieg. A long gone website that I think about often, one that changed my taste in film and influenced my decisions as a film reviewer, is “SciFilm.org.”
Back then, my sensibilities as a movie fan was only beginning to form. I had never even heard of many of the obscure horror movies, eighties action flicks, and bizarro animation that I love today. A fan boy devotion to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” fostered an interest in “bad” movies: Pictures that lack traditional aesthetic value but remain entertaining. Or represent a specific, unusual vision of an outsider filmmaker. That interest led me to “Badmovies.org,” a website that still exists but hasn’t been updated in years. Link pages are less common now but, back then, any mildly popular website had one. Usually used to advertise friends' pages or other projects, sometimes link pages existed just to point people towards similarly themed websites. Listed among Badmovies.org’s link page, and accompanied by a hearty recommendation, was SciFilm.org. Based on the suggestion, I checked it out.
SciFilm.org was a website devoted to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror cinema. In other words, “genre” films. Among the site’s features was an extensive collection of film reviews, including an entire section devoted to the writing of genre archivist Dave Sindelar. There were reviews of old TV shows, news about upcoming films, and announcements concerning new DVD releases. The site was created by a man named Gerry Carpenter. In his own words, which he was happy to supply me with:
“I started Scifilm in 2001 on a whim. I was watching a lot of sci-fi, fantasy and horror movies and decided I had something to say about them. I was young enough and foolish enough to start a website devoted to that topic. It actually began life first as the Scifilm Yahoo Group and then only became a website a little later when I decided I wanted to build something more than just a mailing list.
The inspiration for my site was actually Andrew Borntreger’s Badmovies.org site. I loved reading his hilarious reviews about truly bad movies and enjoyed participating on his Bad Movies forum. However, in addition to the terrible movies I liked watching, there were also a lot of good ones I liked. I didn’t want to just talk about bad movies, but good ones as well. And some times I wanted to talk seriously about bad ones and not just mock them.”
Mr. Sindelar said this about the site’s formation:
“I came on board due to an invitation from Gerry. We’d first met on the Sinister Cinema site, which as time passed deteriorated into endless bickering and invasions by trolls. SciFilm.org was a breath of fresh air; it was a well-maintained, cleanly run site. On top of serving as an archive for my own set of reviews, there was also a review site for others, as well as Jase’s excellent group of TV show reviews.”
While SciFilm.org covered films from every era and decade, the site’s focus was primarily on classic cinema. At the time, I was obsessed with the classic Universal Monster movies – still am, I suppose – and similar pictures from the same time. I loved, love, these things but there weren’t too many places to discuss them then. SciFilm.org represented a wellspring of knowledge for me, allowing me to discover new movies I would come to love and foster a new appreciation in films I already loved.
In truth, SciFilm.org introduced me to many types of genre cinema that I now adore. I had heard of filmmakers like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Mario Bava but SciFilm’s reviews made it clear that Italian horror was different than regular horror. Reviews for movies like “The Car,” “The Beast Within,” “Fantastic Planet,” and “Eraserhead” intrigued me so much that I had to seek them out. One feature that truly made an impression on me was a team-up between SciFilm, Badmovies.org, and several other sites focused on “death sports” movies, such as “Rollerball.” I have no doubt that my current affinity for this type of movie can be traced back to SciFilm. This was the first place I read about obscure Asian, Italian, and Spanish movies, such as the Blind Dead series. The site would also spotlight independent film and home made efforts. I still wonder if I’ll ever find a copy of “Shadows in the Garden.”
SciFilm didn’t just implore me to seek out weird and wonderful things I might not have discovered otherwise. The insights of the reviewers influenced my own writing style. Most of SciFilm’s reviews were broken down into an easily readable format. There was an introduction, a brief plot synopsis, a collection of elements the reviewer thought worked, and some element they didn’t think worked. I employ a similar tactic with my own reviews to this day. Moreover, the reviewers didn’t just discuss a given film’s technical aspects. They would talk about the emotional impact it had on them, such as IronWolfe’s review of “Last House on the Left.” The deeper meanings and potential subtext of stories were frequently a topic of discussion, like in their review of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” The time period a film was made in, and how that affected the finished product, was never ignored. Reviewers with names like Dr. Malty, Chadzilla, Bear, and MindFlash became experts that I respected, whose opinions I sought out. Gerry Carpenter had this to say about the site’s contributors:
“I also always had a sense that I wanted Scifilm to be a community, so I soon invited just about anyone who was interested to write full movie reviews for the site. This greatly enriched the output of the site and introduced me personally to some great films that I likely wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Two major contributors to the site were Dave Sindelar and Jason “Jase” Warren. Scifilm became the archive site for Dave Sindelar’s Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings, which I had first been introduced to on the Sinister Cinema message board (long defunct) when Dave posted his first article. Jason Warren’s specialty was writing about fantastic TV series, everything from "The Adventures of Superman" to more modern offerings like the animated "X-Men: Evolution" series. Both author’s writings quickly became large sections of the site.”
The combination of the obvious passion the writers had for these movies and the easily digestable format made me consider writing my own reviews. Many of the essays and thoughts on SciFilm were written and submitted by readers. If I had submitted something, I’m sure Gerry would have posted it. Lost forever is about half a review of “May” I wrote with the hopes of getting it on SciFilm. Considering my style was very crude at the time, it’s probably for the best that such a thing never surfaced.
As much as I loved the main SciFilm website, there was another element to the site that kept me coming back. Back in the day, SciFilm had a very active forum. The forum technology might seem antiqued by modern standards. At the time, the straight-forward format – usually a collection of topics stacked in an easy-to-read structure – was very appealing to me. A lively reader base kept the forum changing often. Fans and writers would share reviews, thoughts, and ideas among themselves. There were two reoccurring forum features that I recall with a great deal of fondness. A forum member called Jase would post weekly threads, discussing the best sci-fi, fantasy, or horror film for a long ago year. Forum members would vote on their favorite picks and, at the end of the week, Jase would present a winner, a best film from that year. These threads were appointment viewing for me and I can remember at least one day where I got up early so I could vote. (The forum also introduced me to Mr. Lobo, someone I still run into occasionally.)
The Internet Archive has preserved large swathes of the SciFilm forum but much of it is lost. Another forum game I loved that I can’t find were the annual Monster Wars. Essentially tournament style match-ups between classic monsters, in both giant and human-sized varieties, I absolutely adored these events. While I couldn’t find the original forum threads, I did write down the results of the Monster Wars. Amazingly, I still have those papers. Unsurprisingly, Godzilla was a two time champ of the Giant Monster Wars while Dracula emerged victorious in the human-sized class.
The forums weren’t just a fun place to hang out. After a while, it began to feel like a family of sorts. I checked the forum usually multiple times a day. About the on-line sense of community that formed around SciFilm, Gerry Carpenter said this:
“I was very fortunate that my invitations to join this new board was joined very early on by a bunch of great people who would to go on to become real friends. I certainly can’t remember everyone who joined right from the start, but from the very first days of the forum I was having conversations with great folks like Chadzilla, Andrew Kidd, Dr. Mality, Jase, and of course Dave Sindelar.
The forum was always the heart of the site. Everyday, there were interesting and engaging conversations going on. I remember one series of conversations that I had that were extremely literary analyses of the BBC’s series of Ghost Stories for Christmas and their source material—most of which were written by M.R. James and one, “The Sentinel,” by Charles Dickens. This is just one example of the many thousands of fascinating conversations by many highly intelligent and passionate people.”
Dave Sindelar said about the forum:
“Perhaps more than any other forum I’ve visited, it felt like a good group of friends. Flare-ups and fights were rare, and Gerry was an excellent administrator. The “Best of” threads and the Monster Wars, as you mentioned, were both highlights. Quite frankly, no other forum I’ve ever visited has felt more like “home” than that one. After Gerry left and the site transmogrified into what it is now, we went off in our several different directions and I miss many of these people.”
As the saying goes, all good things come to an end. SciFilm launched in 2001 and, from looking at the archived pages, I believe I joined around 2004. By 2006, Carpenter made the decision to shut down the site. His reasoning was:
“As the site grew, both in terms of content and in traffic, it quickly became a part time job. I spent 3-4 hours a day keeping it updated. It was fun and engaging but not necessarily conducive to a positive home environment. Ultimately in late 2007, I decided it was time to hang up my hat and retire. I had discussions with many people who kindly encouraged me to continue and offered me solutions to keep the site alive. In the end, Dave Sindelar and I decided to convert the site to a permanent and dedicated home for his Fantastic Movies Musings and Ramblings.”
The closure of the site bummed me out. After the ending announcement, I can remember writing down every film SciFilm had recommended that I hadn’t yet seen. The forum was a real loss. Thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever to connect to people who like the same things you do. It was a little different a decade ago. Many of the forum regulars migrated to the Badmovies.org forum. Though I tried to integrate myself there, it wasn’t the same. I’m sad to say I’ve lost touch with many of those people.
You’ll notice that the SciFilm domain name is still active. As mentioned above, the site remains as an archive for Dave Sindelar’s writing. Dave is another fine writer and his quixotic quest to review every sci-fi, fantasy, or horror film made continues even now. He’s been reviewing a different film every day for over a decade. SciFilm is now a nearly comprehensive collection of the genre’s history. Just about any classic film you can think of has been covered, with Dave providing entertaining and thoughtful insight. About the site’s current form, Gerry said:
“At over 5,000 titles, Scifilm.org is surely one of the most comprehensive sources of critical writing about fantastic movies on the internet today. Dave’s articles are always interesting, engaging, and fair. It is truly an amazing body of work. I’m proud to have played some small part in its development. The platform the site is built on is aging, and some day it will surely go the way of all the earth, but Scifilm.org is a small part of the history of the internet that will always be dear to my heart.”
I’m fairly certain that, without SciFilm, there would be no Film Thoughts. The site was a big deal for me. Dave’s current page is, of course, wonderful. Yet I frequently find myself nostalgic for the old site. It was one of those situations were you wish something could have lasted longer. For whatever it's worth, I've done my part to keep the legacy of a site and community I loved alive.
(A very heartfelt thank you must be extended to Gerry Carpenter and Dave Sindelar for helping make this article possible.)